Festival Highlights

The project has introduced me to extraordinary cultures such as the Nahua Guerrerense who come together for the common good each year from as far away as New York and Chicago, to experience and share pain through
propitiatory dances dedicated to the rain god. These dances incorporate pain-inflicting devices as ritual combat in the "Tigre" dances, whips in the "Tlacololero” dance, or a wooden alligator’s bailing wire tail in the "Pescadito" dance which is whipped around at such a high speed that it becomes invisible to the 22, paper-streamer festooned, black masked "Pescadores". These participants must guess the tail’s trajectory in their attempt to intercept it with their machetes, trying to cut it short enough to allow the capture of the alligator which is greedily devouring their fish, and getting him out of their "lake" as defined by their wide circle. This dance can last as long as five days during which time the participants are painfully lashed by the invisible, fast-moving bailing-wire tail, which also cuts the pescadores’ chest-high paper streamers, thus keeping score of those working closest to the wire. Of course, these are people who believe that they cannot ask an important favor (in this case, a favorable rain and growing season that would result in an easier year) and expect to have it granted without giving something personally dear in return, which in these instances traditionally has been their pain since it is the most expensive gift that they can afford.

Another extraordinary find was the Huastecan carnival in an area where the people go through the motions of an ancient purification and renewal ritual, which was practiced during "Tlacaxipehualiztli", the second month of the Aztec calendar, which corresponds with Mardi Gras. This ritual was a springtime pre-planting purification ritual during which the skin of the sacrificial victim was flayed and donned by a priest to be removed during a ceremony a week or so later. It was practiced during the preparation of the fields for planting in order to remove any spiritual impediments to the proliferation of vigorous life. Needless to say, the rite so horrified the Spanish conquistadors, that the it was banished under the penalty of death.

The modern Huastecan allusion to this ritual is characterized by the adding of a skin through traditional ritualistic body painting,using river mud as a base that is further embellished by traditional designs painted on once the base is dry, using charcoal, whitewash and a beautiful bright yellow pigment extracted from the bark of the Coral tree. These layers of pigment make up an added a "skin", which will be danced, then later "shed" during ritual bathing in the river; leaving the celebrant to emerge renewed and purified, much as a recently molted snake.

If asked, the Huastecan people explain that they ritually paint their bodies each year for seven years in a traditional attempt to "confound the devil who is seeking out innocent little souls among them", an explanation that I surmise began as a "Christian" reason for the behavior, while they exploited the gaiety of Mardi Gras as an opportunity to continue to honor one of their own gods, "Xipe-Totec", or "Flayed-God-of-Young-Corn". What is extraordinary is that the original reason for this cultural behavior has apparently been forgotten, for the most part, while the celebrants continue to mimic it.

Other noteworthy events were the Huichol Tatei Aramara rites (The Mother of the Ocean, syncretized with the Virgin of Guadalupe) in front of a "caliguey" (religious house) on a Pacific island off of the coast of Nayarit, where I accompanied the Huichol to appropriate all of the rain for the coming year and deal with the imbalance of natural forces that had resulted in problems being experienced by the community, such as drought and a crop-threatening grasshopper plague. It was a beautiful, sensitive ceremony during which the old "marakame" (shaman) directing the rite genuinely wept several times when describing the plight of the community and its effect on their existence. Prayers sung between the marakame and his 12 assistants, 6 each beautifully dressed young men and women, lasted all night culminating at sunrise, with the sacrifice of a small bull on a beach overlooking a white rock in the ocean, believed to be imbued with the spirit of Tatei-Aramara. I also accompanied another group of these fascinating people on a pilgrimage to "wirikuta" in the San Luis Potosi desert to pick peyote. Other coups have been a Cora Easter, the Tlapanec Akuniya (water god) festivities, and many, many others.


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